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Clear & Gentle Guidance on the Big Issues In Life
By Kent Nerburn
New World LibraryCopyright © 1996 Kent Nerburn
All rights reserved.
ON EDUCATION AND LEARNING
Education is one of the great joys and solaces of life. It gives us a framework for understanding the world around us and a way to reach across time and space to touch the thoughts and feelings of others.
But education is more than schooling. It is a cast of mind, a willingness to see the world with an endless sense of curiosity and wonder.
If you want to be truly educated, you must adopt this cast of mind. You must open yourself to the richness of your everyday experience — to your own emotions, to the movements of the heavens and the languages of birds, to the privations and successes of people in other lands and other times, to the artistry in the hands of the mechanic and the typist and the child. There is no limit to the learning that appears before us. It is enough to fill us each day a thousand times over.
* * *
The dilemma of how best to educate has always pivoted on the issue of freedom to explore versus the structured transmission of knowledge.
Some people believe that we learn best by wandering forth into an uncharted universe and making sense of the lessons that life provides.
Others believe that we learn best by being taught the most complete knowledge possible about a subject, then being sent forth to practice and use that knowledge.
Both ways have been tried with every possible method and in every possible combination and balance.
If we find ourselves tempted to celebrate one approach over the other, we should remember the caution of the Chinese sage Confucius, who told his followers, "Study without thinking and you are blind; think without studying and you are in danger."
* * *
Formal schooling is one way of gaining education, and it should not be underestimated. School, if it is good, imparts knowledge and a context for understanding the world around us. It opens us to ideas that we could never discover on our own, and makes us one with the life of the mind as it has been shaped by people and cultures that we could never meet in our own experience. It makes us part of a community of learners, and helps us give form and direction to the endless flow of experience that passes before us.
It is also a great frustration, because it often seems irrelevant to the passions of our own interests and beliefs.
* * *
When you feel burdened by formal education, do not be quick to cast it aside. What is happening is a great surge in your growth and consciousness that is screaming out for immediate and total exploration.
You must remember that all other learners have traveled the same path. And though all true learners have felt this urge to strike out on their own, formal education, in its many shapes and guises, has been sought and revered by all people and all cultures at all times. It has a genius that is greater than your passions, and is abandoned at your own peril.
Still, formal education will not inform your spirit and make you full. So, along with knowledge, you must seek wisdom. Knowledge is multiple; wisdom is singular. Knowledge is words; wisdom is silent. Knowledge is standing outside, understanding what is seen; wisdom is standing at the center, knowing what is not seen. No person can be whole without both dimensions of learning.
There are many ways to seek wisdom. There is travel, there are masters, there is service. There is staring into the eyes of children and elders and lovers and strangers. There is sitting silently in one spot, and there is being swept along in life's turbulent current. Life itself will grant you wisdom in ways you may neither understand nor choose. It is up to you to be open to all these sources of wisdom and to embrace them with your whole heart.
* * *
So do not disparage the lessons of either the schooled or the unschooled.
Those who have less formal education may have learned some single thing more deeply, or they may have embarked early upon the search for wisdom. In their uniqueness, they have discovered something special about life, and it is yours to experience if you are open to what they have to teach.
Those who have devoted their life to formal learning may have walked further along a path than you can even imagine, and may be able to lead you to a vista that will take your breath away, if only you can overcome your boredom and fatigue in the rigors of the search.
Remember the words of the musician who was asked which was greater, knowledge or wisdom. "Without knowledge," he answered, "I could not play the violin. Without wisdom, I could not play the music."
* * *
Place yourself among those who carry on their lives with passion, and true learning will take place, no matter how humble or exalted the setting. But no matter what path you follow, do not be ashamed of your learning. In some corner of your life, you know more about something than anyone else on earth. The true measure of your education is not what you know, but how you share what you know with others.CHAPTER 2
Choose your work carefully.
No matter how much you might believe that your work is nothing more than what you do to make money, your work makes you who you are, because it is where you put your time.
We are what we do, and the more we do it, the more we become it. By giving a job your time, you are giving it your consciousness. Eventually it will fill your life with the reality that it presents.
So look beyond the superficial attractions of a particular job or profession. Consider what it will require you to do on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute basis. See if that is how you want to spend your time.
If it is not, your job will become your prison rather than the vehicle for your dreams. And a person without dreams is only half alive.
* * *
You should think of work as vocation, which comes from the Latin word for calling, which comes from the word for voice. In those meanings it touches on what work really should be — something that calls to you, that gives voice to who you are and what you want to say in the world.
If you find a vocation, embrace it. You have found a way to contribute to the world with love.
* * *
Finding a vocation is not always easy.
You can't really know what it is you want to do by thinking about it. You have to do it and see how it fits. You have to let the work take you over until it becomes you and you become it. Then you have to decide whether to embrace it or to abandon it.
There is no reason why a person can't abandon a job that does not fit and strike out into the unknown for something that lies closer to the heart. There is no reason why a person cannot have two, three, or more careers in the course of a life. No amount of security is worth the suffering of a life lived chained to a routine that has killed your dreams.
* * *
I once had a professor who had dreamed of being a concert pianist. Fearing the possibility of failure, he went into academics, where the work was secure and the money predictable. One day, when I was talking to him about my unhappiness in my graduate studies, he walked over and sat down at his piano. He played a beautiful glissando and then abruptly stopped. "Do what is in your heart," he said. "I really wanted to be a concert pianist. Now I spend every day wondering how good I might have been."
Find what it is that burns in your heart and do it. Choose a vocation, not a job, and your life will have meaning and your days will have peace.CHAPTER 3
Money rules our lives.
You can rail against it. You can claim to be above it or indifferent to it. You can do all the moral and intellectual gymnastics that you want. But when all is said and done, money is at the very center of our existence. Yet money is not of central importance. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the lasting values that make life worth living.
This is one of our great dilemmas. How are we to reconcile ourselves to something that is not important but is at the very center of our lives?
* * *
I have watched people with vast amounts of money who would not give away a nickel out of fear that they would be made poor, and poor people who always seemed to have enough to share with others. I have seen the gracious rich, the criminal poor, the hustler, and the saint. All of them have one thing in common: The way they deal with money is a result of how they think about money, not of how much money they have.
* * *
Money on its most basic level is a hard fact — either you have it or you don't. But on its emotional and psychological level it is purely a fiction. It becomes what you let it become.
Imagine two different people. The first builds his life around his desires. He has an internal accounting system that projects the amount of money he needs to meet his desires, and he feels he is poor unless he has that much.
On the basic level of money, this man feels poor unless he can fill the distance between his present position and his fantasies with the money necessary to bring those fantasies to life. He may be a millionaire, but if his fantasies run into the billions, in his own mind he is poor.
Another person, who sees money as a simple tool for moving through life, will feel comfortable if she has a dollar more than she needs in her pocket, and positively rich if she has ten dollars more than she needs.
She has not built her happiness around desires, so she does not have to measure her money against those desires. She simply has an extra dollar she can spend any way she wants.
The difference between these two people does not lie in their actual wealth. It lies in their psychological relationship to money. They may have exactly the same amount of money — but one measures money against desires and the other measures it against needs.
People who measure their money against their desires will never be happy, because there will always be another desire waiting to lure them. People who measure their money against their needs can gain control over their lives by gaining control over their needs.
* * *
There are certain needs that have to be met. Even people who pare their financial needs to an absolute minimum cannot overcome the grinding oppression of not having enough to eat or not being able to clothe their families.
When you don't have enough to survive, money becomes the centerpiece of your life because you are obsessed with its absence, and your heart very quickly fills with desperation and anger.
If you find yourself filled with the anger and desperation of smothering poverty, you have to rise above it to communicate your hope. You have to reach inside yourself and find your sense of self-worth and your belief that you can and will do better. Then you have to reach out and communicate that belief.
The world is full of desperate people. Even people who want to help can give only so much. They will not respond to more than they see. If they see a hungry man, they will try to feed him. If they see an angry man, they will try to avoid him. If they see a promising man, they will try to help him fulfill his promise.
Show your promise, not your anger and desperation, and the hand of poverty will more readily release its grip on your life.
* * *
When it comes to defeating the desperation of poverty, your only real friend is work. Work — any work — rebuilds the sense of inner worth that desperation takes away. No matter how petty, work establishes the framework for growth and gives you a place to stand as you try to reach for something higher.
If the burden of poverty comes over you, do not look for money. Look for work. The money will follow, and you can begin to move money out of the center of your life and return it to its rightful place as a tool that helps you live a meaningful life.
* * *
Money can tyrannize the wealthy as easily as the poor. Even if you have no interest in money — if you want it only so you won't have to worry about it — at a certain point it becomes an abstraction that operates by abstract laws. It accumulates interest; you need to figure out how to invest it; you need to pay taxes according to how much you make; and it becomes a possession with a life of its own. You need to tend it with vigilance, and it soon becomes central in your mind, even though you thought that possessing it would set you free.
* * *
So how should you deal with money? There are no hard and fast rules. But there are some basic guidelines to keep in mind.
The first is this: It is as important to know how to be poor as it is to know how to be rich.
Financial well-being is nothing more than a balancing act on the back of circumstance. You can be thrown off at any time.
If you know how to be poor with dignity and grace, nothing short of massive financial disaster can disturb your peace of mind.
Knowing how to be poor means developing an unerring instinct for the difference between what is essential and what is only desirable. It means knowing how to take control of your life — how to repair and maintain the things around you, how to purchase wisely and well, how not to purchase at all when you do not have the means to do so, and how to take joy in the simple pleasures in life.
It means not getting caught up in what is lacking, but finding meaning in what you have. It means knowing how to live with style and creativity without basing your life on money.
If you learn to accept poverty when it comes, it will make you clearer and stronger and more self-reliant. It will make you more appreciative of the simple gifts of life. But you must learn to live by its rules and to embrace the life of limitations that it forces upon you.
* * *
A second guideline is this: Stay away from debt in your personal life. Debt, not poverty, is the greatest enemy of financial well-being and peace of mind.
There are massive forces arrayed in the world to tell you of the great benefits of debt. They will tell you that by borrowing you will establish your legitmacy in the eyes of lenders. They will tell you that you can have tomorrow's pleasures at today's prices.
They will present arguments and inducements that are convincing and seductive. They will dress debt up in a suit and call it credit. But it all comes down to the same thing: You will have mortgaged your future to pay for your present, and this is something you don't ever want to do.
Debt can make you money because it allows you to invest when the opportunity presents itself. Debt can help you in the present and leave your problems for what you hope will be a better time in the future.
But debt defines your future, and when your future is defined, hope begins to die. You have committed your life to making money to pay for your past. Stay away from debt if you can. There is no sadder sight than the person with dreams and promise whose eyes have dulled and whose days are spent pushing the heavy wheel of debt toward an endless horizon.
* * *
This is a third guideline: Money tends to move away from those who try to hoard it, and toward those who share it.
If you are a hoarder, you live with a locked vault in your heart. Nothing can get in; nothing can get out. If you are a sharer, you bring out the sharer in others. Then money moves freely.
Money is like any other language through which people communicate. People who speak the same language tend to find each other. If you are one whose money speaks of protection and hoarding, you will find yourself involved with others whose money speaks the same language. You will be staring at each other with hooded eyes and closed fists, and suspicion will be your common value.
If your money speaks of sharing, you will find yourself among people who want their money to speak the language of sharing, and your world will be filled with possibility.
* * *
A fourth guideline to keep in mind is that money comes and goes. You must not be immobilized by the fear of losing it.
I often think of an old man who lives near us. He lives in near poverty and is a curmudgeonly sort. His livelihood is making doghouses. We live in a very poor part of the country where there is little money for people houses, much less doghouses. Yet this man insists on selling his doghouses for more than people around here can pay.
At one point I needed a doghouse. Unaware of his prices, I went over to see him. I told him how much I had. I was five dollars short. "My price is my price," he said, and slammed the door.
Excerpted from Simple Truths by Kent Nerburn. Copyright © 1996 Kent Nerburn. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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